Written by Britney Milazzo
For the Democrat and Chronicle
When it comes to barbecue, music and dancing, Sticky Lips BBQ Juke Joint tackles all three.
And owner Howard Nielsen of Rochester said “big things” are in the works for his small franchise with expansion plans and a possible opportunity to be on a culinary reality show.
“It’s exciting when you have the opportunity to do big things,” Nielsen said. “But first things first. We need to manage our restaurants here, then plan forward when the right time comes.”
The “juke joint” opened on Jefferson Road last October as Nielsen’s second Sticky Lips barbecue restaurant. Nielsen said his goal was for it to be different from the original barbecue pit on Culver Road in the city.
“The food is the same, but it’s bigger here. It holds 400 instead of 100, and we host bands and encourage our customers to get up, dance, eat and have fun,” Nielsen said.
And locals like Beth Godden of Greece, Corey Ludwig of Penfield and Greg Ventura of Greece agreed as they all used the phrase “I love it!” to describe its loud, fun and friendly atmosphere.
“It’s much bigger than the original Sticky Lips,” Ventura said. “There’s a stage where they have bands … and the huge size doesn’t make it lose its cozy hometown feel.”
Nielsen said he was intrigued to open a barbecue restaurant more than a decade ago after one of his Chester Cab Pizza employees — who was also working at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que downtown — brought up the idea of opening a “takeout kind of barbecue place.”
“Every Sunday the guys came to my house and we’d make sauces and other recipes,” Nielsen said.
About six years after opening the Sticky Lips Pit BBQ on Culver Road, Nielsen said it was time for him to expand. Nielsen said he was inspired to tweak the theme of his next Sticky Lips after visiting and eating at other barbecue places down South.
“My son and I went to Memphis for barbecue and enjoyed the atmosphere so much, we knew we had to bring it home. The Rochester area isn’t known for barbecue,” Nielsen said. “When we opened in Henrietta, we knew we needed a big enough place to bring people barbecue, music and that kind of atmosphere.”
Nielsen said he found the perfect location on Jefferson Road in Henrietta — also known as “Restaurant Row” — where the Roadhouse Grill once occupied. After purchasing the building in February 2010, the Juke Joint was opened a year-and-a-half later.
“When we opened, people were lining up out the door. It was a little bit of a reality check,” Nielsen said. “You have a moment that you don’t think you can do it until you stick it out. People comment, both good and bad, and we rectify the situation to make our restaurant the best it can be.”
Nielsen said using local products and homemade food helped grow business.
Juke Joint general manager Stacey Britts said they offer RC Cola, Genesee Brewing Co. and Three Heads Brewery beers and Finger Lake wines. The barbecue sauces are all homemade, and the bands that perform there are local as well.
“I think people appreciate that we have that Southern barbecue kind of twist right here without going far to find it,” Bitts said.
But the restaurant’s 15 minutes of fame came last year, when the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food visited Sticky Lips with the show’s host, Adam Richman.
“That was the most fun we’ve had here in a while,” Nielsen said. “Richman had the crowd roaring with laughter.”
The show allowed a “celebrity” eat off, which allowed NASCAR driver Joey Logano to take the place of Richman.
“Richman needs a break once in a while, so Logano took his place,” Nielsen said. “We appreciate it so much, because he had raced down at Watkins Glen earlier and drove all this way to eat as much as he can and film for 12 hours with us.”
Logano was not able to finish the five pounds of food in less than 30 minutes, and Nielsen said only a handful of guys have ever completed the challenge.
Nielsen said his recent stardom might have helped land him a barbecue reality show.
“I recently got a call from a California TV producer to maybe do a reality barbecue show,” Nielsen said. “They were really vague with the information, but I was told to apply. I don’t know much more than that, what channel it’s for, but I’m thinking about it.”
But before Sticky Lips opens elsewhere or hits television, Nielsen said he needs to serve the community and the customers first.
“We need to stick to helping out the area with barbecue fundraisers and make sure everyone enjoys their experience here,” Nielsen said. “Our success is because of our staff and our customers, and in a small, blue-collar town like Rochester, your reputation means a lot.”